(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Author Robert Service acknowledges that several excellent biographies of the Soviet dictator have previously been published, but he believes that they have all failed to describe adequately the dictator’s complexities and contradictory qualities. Stalin: A Biography, therefore, “is aimed at showing that [Joseph Stalin] was a more dynamic and diverse figure than has conventionally been supposed.” A complex human being not reducible to a single dimension, Stalin “was a bureaucrat and a killer, he was also a leader, a writer and editor, a theorist (of sorts), a bit of poet (when young), a follower of the arts, a family man and a charmer.” Despite some humane qualities, however, he was “as wicked a man as has ever lived,” displaying paranoid tendencies, abnormal compulsions to dominate and seek vengeance, and an absence of moral qualms about causing the deaths of countless persons, including former friends and associates.

Having previously published and edited at least eight books about modern Russian history, Service is very familiar with the mountain of primary and secondary sources relating to Stalin’s life and career. At least two-thirds of the book’s footnotes refer to Russian-language materials not translated into English. This is the first major biography of Stalin to appear since the large-scale opening of Soviet archives after the breakup of the Soviet Union, although the vast majority of significant discoveries have already been revealed in works such as Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War (1996), by Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, one of the hundreds of sources to which Service referred. Even if the biography has few surprises, it is filled with fascinating details and is at least as interesting and readable as the earlier works of Richard Conquest, Robert Tucker, and others.

Service argues that an examination of Stalin’s early life is essential to understanding his mature personality and behavior. Born Iosef Dzhughashvili, the boy grew up in a household filled with an extreme degree of capricious violence, and it is reasonable to infer that “little Joseph must have grown up assuming that this was the natural order of things.” The evidence clearly indicates that his father was a brute who was frequently drunk. According to his daughter, Svetlana, Stalin once threw a knife at his father in an attempt to stop a beating of his mother. Even his pious mother was not averse to giving a young boy a brutal thrashing. Without relying on psychoanalytic theory, Service observes that persons bullied in childhood frequently grow up looking for others to bully. He further observes: “Not everyone beaten by parents acquires a murderous personality. Yet some do, and it would seem that more do than is true for general society.”

Service holds that Stalin’s development was also influenced by the broader culture in which he lived during his formative years. In his native land of Georgia, people sometimes engaged in practiced long-standing group feuds and approved of revenge-taking as a virtue. Even more significantly, Stalin’s boyhood experiences as a relatively poor son of an unhappy cobbler left him with a strong sense of bitterness toward persons of wealth and prestige. His seminary training for the Orthodox priesthood probably reinforced his tendency toward dogmatic, dualistic, and authoritarian tendencies. In addition, he acquired many of his ideas and values from specific books that he read, particularly Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il principe (1513; The Prince, 1640) and biographies of Ivan the Terrible, who became one of Stalin’s heroes.

Reflecting an anticommunist point of view, Service argues that Stalin’s inclinations and unconscious needs predisposed him to be attracted to the Marxist-Leninist ideology. For an angry young man who assumed that conflict was normal and wanted to dominate others, the ideology was a perfect fit. It provided a moral justification for taking revenge and establishing a dictatorship under a revolutionary vanguard in the name of the proletariat. In short, the ideology “allowed him to give vent to his chronic viciousness.”

Service refutes the commonly held thesis that Stalin played only a minor role in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War. On the issue of nationality, he praises Stalin’s moderate encouragement of federal autonomy for large non-Russian nationalities. On the question of violence, Stalin was a part of a subculture that endorsed terror as a means to a utopian end. Service observes that perceptions about Stalin’s early career often have their origins in the writings of Leon...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, no. 14 (March 15, 2005): 1262.

Contemporary Review 286 (May, 2005): 318.

The Economist 34 (January 8, 2005): 74.

Library Journal 130, no. 10 (June 1, 2005): 142.

The New Leader 88, no. 2 (March/April, 2005): 17-19.

New Statesman 133 (October 18, 2004): 50-51.

The New York Times 154 (April 13, 2005): E10.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (June 12, 2005): 22-23.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 8 (February 21, 2005): 164.

The Times Literary Supplement, December 24, 2004, p. 14.

The Washington Post Book World, April 17, 2005, p. 3.